Notes on the Qur’an: Surah Baqarah Pt. 1

P.S. [but in the wrong place] If you have anything at all to add or correct, please do get in touch!

I sort of do want to redo – or add to – all of this if/when I acquire more knowledge on the Qur’an. 

 

Surah Baqarah: the second – and longest – Surah in the Qur’an. The word ‘Baqarah’ means ‘Cow’ in Arabic: this Surah is named after a particular event that took place during the time of Moses (Musa AS).

I have included some verbatim quotes from the (Pickthall translation of the) Qur’an, in blueRe-note the fact that all translations of the Qur’an happen to be, by nature, interpretations, too… 

Now, most likely, this Surah had been revealed in its entirety within the four years after Hijrah – after the early Muslims’ migration from Makkah to Yathrib (Madinah). Some of the verses it contains are addressed to the Jews of the time: the followers of Moses, and of Abraham. At this time, in Yathrib, the Jewish tribes had (although reduced in power, over time, by two pagan Arab tribes) had preserved “a sort of intellectual ascendancy owing to their possession of the Scripture and their fame for occult science, the pagan Arabs consulting their rabbis on occasions and paying heed to what they said” [Pickthall].

And the Rabbis of these tribes knew, and often told their fellow people, that a Prophet was about to come. So plainly were they able to describe the coming prophet – from their scriptures, for example – that pilgrims from Yathrib were able to distinctively recognise the Prophet, when he addressed them in Makkah.

This is why Allah (SWT) says: “believe in that which I reveal, confirming that which ye possess already (of the Scripture), and be not the first to disbelieve (conceal the truth) therein”.

However, their [i.e. the Jews of the time and place] idea of a Prophet was “one who would give them dominion, not one who would make them brethren of every pagan Arab who chose to accept Al-Islam”.

  • This Surah reinstates the notion of Pure Monotheism: the religion of Abraham. Bowing to one God, and not to, for example, our personal desires, like those for power and supremacy over others.

 

  • “All through the Surah runs the note of warning, which sounds indeed throughout the whole Qur’an, that it is not the mere profession of a creed, but righteous conduct, which is true religion” [Pickthall]
    • This is a crucial thing for us to remember. We must try to be sincere in our actions, doing things for the sake of Allah, and not allowing pride (arrogance) of tradition to creep into our practising of religion. For example, there are some who perceive themselves as being better Muslims than others simply because they happen to be Arab. But factors such as these are unimportant. And, in reality, religion concerns your own bond with God, and your efforts and actions, beginning from whom and where you are.
    • The Abrahamic tradition of Pure Monotheism should be accessible to all in equal measure. Some are not more likely to obtain God’s favour than others purely as a result of their lineage.

 

  • “True religion […] consists in the surrender of man’s will and purpose to the Will and Purpose of the Lord of Creation.
  • “Of sincerity in that religion the one test is conduct

 

  • This Surah outlines some of the key beliefs that a Muslim (one who submits to Allah, and to Allah alone) ought to have: in Al-Ghayb (the Unseen), certainty in the Hereafter…
  • It also speaks about how best to (physically, in terms of actions) manifest and cultivate these beliefs, containing rules for fasting, the pilgrimage, almsgiving, prayer, as well as social and economic rules concerning contracts and divorce, the prohibition of usury, intoxication, and gambling.
  • To be a Muslim is, first and foremost, to believe: to take the Shahadah, bearing witness that there is no God but Allah, and that Muhammad (SAW) was his Servant and Messenger.
  • And then, to be a Muslim is also to observe all of these rules that have been laid out for us. Beginning with those ‘four pillars’ of prayer, almsgiving, pilgrimage, and fasting. And then, extending outwards into the social realms. We must observe these social obligations and regulations with much caution and care; we have rights over, as well as responsibilities towards, the people we know, and interact with. A good Muslim is conscientious when it comes to observing these.

 

  • “These depend on guidance from their Lord. These are the successful.”
    • So, first and foremost, we should depend on the guidance that has come to us, from Allah. The Qur’an, and what it says. And Hadith. And, where things are a little less clear, we must rely on the underlying principles that Revelation comprises. 
    • The “successful” are the ones who depend on this guidance. This is true wisdom! It would be foolish to rely, on a primary basis, on notions of success and wisdom that may come from elsewhere. Our Deen ought to be the basis of our lives.
    • Elsewhere in our tradition, we are told through the Adhan to “hasten to prayer, hasten to success
    • Indeed, success relies on the pursuit of meaningful activities, towards consequences that are better than alternatives, and towards things that will last. This is what we Muslims seek, on our ventures towards Jannah. And it is okay if maybe we must give up a few worldly pleasures in order to get there, no?

 

  • Two groups of people are heavily reprimanded in the Qur’an: the Kuffar (the ones who cover[ed] – the ones who knew about the coming of the Prophet, and who had every reason to [purely] believe, but refused) and the Munafiqun (the hypocrites: outwardly Muslim, but only in a superficial way).
  • Religion concerns the ‘inside’ as well as the ‘outside’: the heart, and one’s actions and behaviour in light of belief. While those who exhibit Kufr believed in Islam deep within, they did not allow this to manifest outwardly, out of pride. On the flip side, those who exhibit Nifaq may call themselves Muslims, but they are not sincere in this; they do not treat the title of ‘Muslim’ with due attention and honour. May Allah save us from being among either of these groups of people. We must focus on our own intentions, the states of our hearts, as well as our efforts and activities.

 

  • “Make not mischief on the Earth”
    • We should favour peace; try not to ‘stir’ things between people, try not to make things hard for others. Salaam! 

 

  • “And when it is said unto them: Believe as the people [i.e. the majority of people in Yathrib, at this time] believe, they say: ‘Shall we believe as the foolish believe?’ Verily, they are indeed the foolish, but they perceive it not”
    • As aforementioned, the people of these Jewish tribes thought themselves superior as a result of their more ‘developed’ theological knowledge. They did not want to be equal in brotherhood to whom they had deemed to be ‘the foolish’.
    • Islam – submission to the Almighty – first requires a good deal of humility, and this includes humility in matters of intellectualism.
    • There are certainly some parallels to be drawn between modern (New) Atheism, and how many atheists perceive theists as being foolish. Sometimes they assume airs of arrogance, too. But it is they who are the ones who do not know — though, at present, they perceive it not.

 

  • The theme of hypocrisy is addressed once again: the notion of people acting like (good) Muslims before other people, but being different when in private. Being a true Muslim necessitates deeply caring about one’s actions and intentions both before the people, and when they are not there.
  • They (the hypocrites) “purchase error at the price of guidance, so their commerce doth not prosper”
    • There will not be Barakah (blessing) in their business 
    • Note the metaphor of ‘purchasing’. This is significant, for we acquire things through our wealth: wealth in the forms of Time, health, intelligence, and our material possessions and money. We can purchase things from the way of guidance (which will bring us Barakah) or we can purchase from that of error.

 

  • “O mankind! Worship your Lord, Who has created you and those before you”
    • Some of the blessings of our Lord unto us are mentioned: the Earth, the sky, the rain, fruits. How wonderful these things are; how much we have been given. But we are often heedless of it all. 
    • “It is He who created for you everything that is on the Earth”

 

  • “And do not set up rivals to Allah when you know (better)”
    • We worship none but God. No ideology, no person, nothing but Allah is worthy of worship. We thank and praise Him, we ask Him for help, we remember Him, we devote our good actions to Him… 

 

  • “And if ye are in doubt concerning that which We reveal unto our servant [Muhammad], then produce a Surah of the like thereof…”
    • In Islam, we believe that since the dawn of humanity, up until the time of Muhammad (SAW), prophets and messengers have been sent to different communities, to spread the message of God. 
    • It is interesting to note that Isa (AS) [Jesus], for example, had been given unique powers of healing. He had been born into a society that had been deeply concerned with medicinal healing. They had discovered and pioneered a range of cures for diseases, however they still could not cure certain diseases – like those of blindness, leprosy and… death. But Allah (SWT) had granted Isa (AS) these particular abilities to heal people, as a sign for those open to faith.
    • Likewise, during Musa (AS)’s time, Sihr (magic, through contact with the worlds Unseen) had been widely practised. But the abilities of Musa (AS), by Allah (SWT)’s Will, went above and beyond what the people of his time had been capable of. For example, when he threw down his stick, and it turned into a snake, and when he stood at the Red Sea, and it parted in two for him.
    • Now, the society that Muhammad (SAW) had been born into (pre-Islamic Arabia) had very much been one of poetry. The poets of the time had been highly trained since early ages [in fact, the ability to simply write, let alone compose beautiful poetry, had been very rare indeed, which is why scribes tended to be paid very highly]; they (the poets) were revered, and people would gather around them to hear them speak. But nobody could compete with the linguistic brilliance of the Qur’an; it could not have come from this ‘unlettered’ man (Muhammad SAW). This led to many of the most skilful and admired poets of the time embracing Islam.

 

  • “And give glad tidings (O Muhammad) unto those who believe and do good works; that theirs are Gardens beneath which rivers flow”
    • This Ayah once again emphasises the importance of belief and what is within ourselves, as well as the importance of manifestations of this, i.e. good works. 
    • Jannah-tul-Firdaus (Heaven) has subterranean rivers. Land with such rivers tends to have luscious and thriving greenery!
    • Here, we will (Insha Allah) have delicious food and fruit, as well as “pure companions”. As humans, we may have numerous wants. We dream idealistically, but often these greater desires cannot be realised here in the Dunya (the current world). But Jannah is where all these desires can be fulfilled.
    • The good that you do, here, you are putting forward for your Ākhirah. If you believe and do good works, Jannah is already yours: these Gardens beneath which rivers flow are yours. 
    • On the flip-side: “whosoever has done evil and his sin surrounds him: such are rightful owners of the Fire; they will abide therein”. 
    • Through our deeds, we are purchasing property: our future abodes. They are either gardens beneath which rivers flow (and the more righteous among us will have the best of these) or the Fire. 
    • “Whatever of good you send before (you) for your souls, you will find it with Allah”

 

  •  “He misleadeth not except the defiantly disobedient” 
    • This brings up the topic of Free Will and Determinism. We have agency and free will, but this is ultimately enveloped by Allah (SWT)’s supreme authority. He decides on the outcomes of our choices. We choose belief or disbelief. And the ones who are defiantly disobedient are very much increased in error by Allah.

 

  •  The losers in this test of life are defined as the ones who “break the covenant of Allah after ratifying it”, and who break the ties of kinship [this brings up the importance of social rights and responsibilities, once again. We have to cherish and maintain our bonds with family members] and who make mischief on the Earth. 

 

  • We are reminded of the fact that we have been lifeless once. Then, we came to life, by Allah (SWT)’s Will and Grace. To Him, we shall return.
  • This life is the “flight of the alone to the Alone” [Plotinus]
  • We “will have to meet [our] Lord, and unto Him [we] are returning”
  • We will be judged for our deeds, on a day when it is just us, alone with what we have done, the decisions that we have made

 

  • “And He is the Knower of all things” 

 

  • We are viceroys/viceregents (‘Khalifahs’) of the Earth. We have been given sovereignty, here. The Earth is for us, and we have a duty towards it, and towards what it contains.

 

  • Allah (SWT) taught Adam (AS) language. Language is a phenomenal thing, if you think about it: it facilitates what separates us from the rest of animal-kind ⁠— our capacities for reason, to internally regulate our thoughts. This is from whence human agency is born.

 

  • Pride – and especially that which prevents us from following Allah (SWT)’s commands – e.g. pride in one’s own cognitive conclusions, thinking that our fallible minds are actually infallible – leads to Kufr (internal belief, devoid of necessary actions). Once again, both the ‘inner’ and the ‘outer’ are necessary, to actually be one who submits to Allah.

 

  • Life in the Dunya is a test. Here, we get “a habitation and provision for a time”.
    • To attain success, we must follow the Guidance, and what it contains, taking care of our ‘inner’ and ‘outer’ states, attempting to acquire the state of righteousness 
    • “Eat and drink of that which Allah hath provided, and do not act corruptly” 
    • Focus on the provisions you have been given, and be grateful for them. An example is given, in this Surah, of the Children of Israel: when they had been provided with manna and quails by Allah. But they had wanted more. 
    • “Would ye exchange that which is higher for that which is lower?”
    • Sometimes, the things we have been given by Allah are actually better for us than whatever we may desire from outside of it. Lifestyles, possessions, and all the rest of it… 

 

  • We should not part with what has been revealed to us – with Islam – for “a trifling price”. 
    • Back to the sustained metaphor of transactions, our Deen is the most valuable thing we have. Why would we give it up for cheap things, like certain antithetical lifestyles?
    • We have a duty towards God. We are His servants.

 

  • We should not lie, and nor should we dilute the Truth with falsehood.

 

  • A lot of it is about gratitude. Worship your Lord, and be grateful to Him. Be grateful of the provisions He has given you, e.g. by paying Zakat (money to the poor).

 

  • “Enjoin ye righteousness upon mankind while ye yourselves forget (to practise it)? …”
    • It is scary to think how severe yet widespread the idea of ‘preaching but not practising’ is. More so than ‘talking the talk’, we really must ‘walk the walk’ of Al-Islam, though spreading the message is also of great importance. 
    • “… and you are readers of scripture!”
      • If we read the Qur’an, we must also be careful to ensure that we are implementing its teachings, with due diligence. 

 

  • Seek help in patience and prayer; and truly, it is hard save for the humble-minded” 
    • This Dunya is a place of numerous trials and tribulations. But we are told to seek help in patience and prayer. Who are we to deny the wisdom in this? 
    • Patience: Sabr. Basically, Islamic Stoicism, a beautiful patience. Enduring negative emotions, sometimes, but still toiling, having hope in things that are yet to come, for us. Allah (SWT) loves those who put their trust in Him, but this is not to say that fatalism and inaction are the answers. Quite the opposite, actually. We must act, while also having Sabr.
    • Interspersed throughout are days are also the five daily Salah. How lovely: we spend our days however we spend them, but there are also these sacred pitstops, meetings with our Lord. And, through them, we can make Du’a ⁠—supplications to Him. And He, as is said elsewhere in the Qur’an, responds to the caller when they call out to Him.
    • Humility is encouraged, once again. We should not have pride before our Creator in ways that counteract the humility we ought to have before Him. The humble-minded know that it is their duty, and a blessing, to pray. And the humble surrender to Allah, and to Allah alone.

 

  • If we seek forgiveness from Allah, we will be forgiven for our sins. And, for good actions, we will have increased rewards.

 

  • Do not change the word of God. [This is an example of adulterating Truth with falsehood, and is a major sin]
    • Revelation says what it says. We should not alter the words of God to befit our own narratives. Even if a certain commandment goes against our own desires, if it is a clear-cut commandment, it is a clear-cut commandment, and we are very limited in knowledge.

 

  • “God does not shy from drawing comparisons even with something as small as a gnat, or something greater: the believers know it is the truth from their Lord, but the disbelievers say, ‘What does God mean by such a comparison?’ Through it He makes many go astray and leads many to the right path. But it is only the rebels He makes go astray”

    • The coronavirus: it is certainly smaller than a gnat. Through it, many are increased in wrongdoing, while others are led back to the right path. Think about Ramadan during this quarantine period: many people really came back to Islam, and found a true sense of peace in worship. Meanwhile, others may simply question Allah (SWT)’s wisdom, and go astray.

 

  • “Those who believe (in that which is revealed unto thee, Muhammad), and those who are Jews, and Christians (Nazarenes – those who had been ‘Christian’ without worshipping Christ), and Sabaeans — whoever believeth in Allah and the Last Day and doeth right — surely their reward is with their Lord, and there shall no fear come upon them, and neither shall they grieve.”
    • The righteous are those who submit to and worship God. 
    • “And they say: None entereth Paradise unless he be a Jew or a Christian. These are their own desires. Say: Bring your proof, if you are truthful. // Nay, but whoever surrenders his purpose to Allah while doing good, his reward is with his Lord. And there shall be no fear come upon them, and nor shall they grieve”.  
    • “Hold fast to what We have given you” 

 

  • We are sort of like apes, at least physiologically. But we are much more than them. If we surrender to our lowly desires and instincts, at the expense of the things that ennoble us, and make us distinguishable as human beings, we become “like apes, despised”. 

 

  • We must not allow our hearts to harden. And the state of one’s heart is contributed to by one’s actions: (sincere) acts of worship, for example, purify the heart. Acts of service towards others makes us more empathetic and emotionally intelligent. And the media we consume also has direct effects on our hearts. So we must be careful!

 

  •  “Worship none but Allah, and be good to parents and to kindred and to orphans and the needy, and speak kindly to mankind. And establish worship, and pay the poor-due.”
    • We have duties towards our Lord, as well as duties towards the people. The needy, we must help, and to fellow people – to fellow Children of Adam – we must speak kindly. 

 

  • Do not shed the blood of your people, and do not drive them out from their homes.

 

  •  Do not be greedy for this current life.

 

Stopped at Ayah 113. Until next time, Insha Allah!


Sadia Ahmed J., 2020 

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